UN watchdog says Iran plans to increase uranium enrichment

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran plans to install two new cascades of advanced centrifuges that will allow Tehran to rapidly enrich more uranium, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Thursday, the latest escalation in the standoff over the nuclear program of the country.

The decision to add the two IR-6 centrifuge cascades at its underground nuclear facility in Natanz comes as countries voted to censure Iran at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on Wednesday night. The complaint addresses what the watchdog describes as Iran’s failure to provide “credible information” about man-made nuclear material found at three undeclared locations in the country.

But even before the vote, Iran shut down two devices the IAEA uses to monitor enrichment at Natanz. Iranian officials also threatened to take further steps amid a years-long crisis that threatens to escalate into more attacks.

The IAEA said Thursday that its Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi informed members that Iran had informed the agency that it was planning to install two new cascades of IR-6s at Natanz. A cascade is a series of centrifuges linked together to spin uranium gas to enrich it.

An IR-6 centrifuge spins uranium ten times faster than the first-generation centrifuges that Iran was once restricted to under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. According to the IAEA, Iran had already filmed a cascade of IR-6s at its underground facility in Fordo in February.

At Natanz, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital Tehran, Iran had previously announced plans to install a cascade of IR-6s. The IAEA said it “verified” the ongoing installation of that cascade on Monday, while the newly promised two new cascades have not yet started.

Iran and world powers agreed on the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Tehran drastically curtailed its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the deal, escalating tensions across the Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna about the disrupted nuclear deal with Iran have stalled since April. Since the deal’s failure, Iran has operated advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium.

Non-proliferation experts warn that Iran has enriched enough, to 60% purity — a short technical step from a 90% weapons-grade level — to produce a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so.

Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, although UN experts and Western intelligence agencies say Iran had an organized military nuclear program until 2003.

Building a nuclear bomb would still cost Iran more time in pursuit of a weapon, analysts say, although they warn Tehran’s advances are making the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past that it would launch a pre-emptive strike to stop Iran – and is already suspected in a string of recent assassinations of Iranian officials.

Iran has been holding IAEA surveillance camera footage since February 2021 as leverage to restore the nuclear deal.

The no-confidence motion sponsored by Germany, France, Britain and the US at the IAEA meeting in Vienna was passed with the support of 30 out of 35 governors. Russia and China voted against it, Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov wrote on Twitter. India, Libya and Pakistan abstained.

After the vote, a joint statement by France, Germany, the UK and the US said the censorship “is sending a clear message to Iran that it must honor its security obligations and provide technically credible clarifications on outstanding security issues.”

The Iranian foreign ministry, meanwhile, criticized the rebuke as a “political, incorrect and unconstructive action”.

An Iranian official had previously warned IAEA officials that Tehran was now considering taking “other measures” as well.

“We hope they will come to their senses and respond to Iran’s cooperation with cooperation,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. “It is unacceptable that they engage in inappropriate behavior while Iran continues to cooperate.”

Wednesday night, a drone exploded in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in its Kurdish region, slightly injuring three people and damaging cars and a nearby restaurant, officials said. While no one immediately complained about the attack, Iran has in the past targeted Irbil amid regional tensions.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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